Route Two Soccer: Chicago Teach a Course on How to Beat North Carolina

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The Chicago Red Stars showed this weekend how North Carolina can be defeated. Other teams may try to emulate them…at their own risk.

The North Carolina Courage lost this weekend, for the first time in almost a year. And that’s not even the strange thing. The strange thing is: it didn’t even end up being all that close. The Chicago Red Stars certainly didn’t dominate the game, but neither did they look especially threatened. And their final margin of 3-1 could just as easily have been bigger—with Chicago having been denied a fairly clear penalty when Sam Kerr was pulled down in the box in the first half.

So what happened? Did Chicago reveal a secret flaw that may now be exploited by others? Is North Carolina taking a bigger hit than expected from the loss of their national team players? Or was this just a one-off game, and everything will return to normal soon?

The answer isn’t completely clear at this point, but likely is a combination of all three. Certainly, the Courage backline has looked far more rickety with the absence of Abby Dahlkemper, and those issues will only magnify now that Abby Erceg is off to join New Zealand. Last week’s replacement center back, Kayleigh Kurtz, struggled badly trying to contain Imani Dorsey of Sky Blue. This week’s fill-in, Cari Roccaro, faced similar issues with the multi-pronged Chicago attack.

With both Roccaro and Kurtz having issues with speed, and neither distinguishing themselves in one-on-one defending either, Carolina was always going to look more exposed. However, it would be unfair to level all (or even most) of the blame on those two players. The hallmark of the Courage’s resilient defense has always rested higher up the pitch, where aggressive pressing disrupts the opponent and kills attacks before they can even begin. And that’s where the team really struggled against Chicago. Time and again, the Red Stars midfield pierced the Carolina press, with smooth passing, clever dribbling, and intelligent runs. Particularly at fault here was Denise O’Sullivan, who was exposed repeatedly in the holding midfield role, and looked much more like the version of O’Sullivan we saw back with the Houston Dash in early 2017, and much less like the more dynamic player we’ve grown accustomed to with North Carolina. McCall Zerboni also had an uncharacteristically quiet game, finding it difficult to disrupt play, and also struggling a bit in possession.

Even further up the pitch, Kristen Hamilton one of her weaker games in recent memory, while Julia Spetsmark looked lively on occasion, but wasn’t able to exploit the wide channels nearly as much as the departed Jess McDonald.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. When multiple players have games on the lower side of their ability, and you’re playing a strong team, results will sometimes tip away from you. And Chicago was uniquely well-suited to seize the opportunity that was provided. They possess one of the strongest midfields in the league under any circumstance—and that advantage has only magnified with the removal of the World Cup-bound. Vanessa DiBernardo and Dani Colaprico are two of the best passers in the American player pool. Support those two with Nikki Stanton in behind to clean up any messes, and give them the chance to play off Yuki Nagasato and Sam Kerr dropping in from forward positions, as well as Michele Vasconcelos’s speculative runs down the wing, and you have a recipe for unlocking the oppressive North Carolina press.

The problem for everyone else in the league is: without players who can dictate play in such a cool and measured fashion, the potential to exploit a weakness in the Carolina armor may be more fanciful than realistic. For all that the Red Stars found an opportunity, it’s also important not to overstate the case. Chicago scored three goals from just three shots on goal. And two of those were fairly tame shots, too, which the keeper probably should have saved. Meanwhile, North Carolina amassed seven more shots than Chicago, two more shots on goal, more corners, more crosses, and more passes at a higher accuracy.

On another day, if this game was played out in the same way, you’d expect better performances from a few Courage players, a bit less luck for Chicago, and things could easily turn in the opposite direction. What’s more, a big part of the Chicago performance depended on Sam Kerr, who is sui generis, and has now left for her own World Cup preparations. You certainly can’t count on getting that kind of performance going forward.

So Chicago’s approach certainly could be replicated, but even for them it would hardly be a sure thing. And for everyone else, it would be even more of a risk. Because for all that there’s a potential weakness here, the past two years have shown just how devastating this Courage team can be when given the chance to attack an open opponent. If the lesson teams take from this game is that North Carolina is ripe for the picking, they run the risk of being carved to bits by a revitalized Courage press. It’s a gamble that some might take, but it’s a dangerous one.

As the saying goes, if you come at the devil you better not miss.

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